Sunday, April 11, 2010

A common misassumption among adoptive parents: "My adopted child isn't going to have issues"

I know AP’s who have taken the route of “my child isn’t going to have ‘issues’.” That’s about the most detrimental environment that an AP can establish for an adoptee. It’s the textbook example of how NOT to raise your adopted child.

I know AP’s who tell themselves, “If I say or don’t say, if I do or don’t do the right things then my adopted child will be just fine,” or the classic, “As long as I don’t bring it up or make it an issue, then my child won’t bring it up and won’t have issues about being adopted.”

These AP’s tell themselves, “I don’t want to mention it if the child doesn’t mention it, because I might somehow plant some kind of seed and cause the child to have issues.”

Besides the fact that such assumptions indicate that the adoptive parents are focusing more on themselves and their wants, and less on the needs of the adopted child, the seed is already there. It was planted the moment the original mother left. It’s not going anywhere. You can choose to ignore it, but it will still continue to take root and grow.

You can try to neglect it, smother it, kill it, but by doing so, you are destroying a part of the identity of the child you claim to love.

To choose ignorance is hurtful to your adopted child. You are teaching your child denial, because you yourself are practicing denial.

I know you think that you’ll be there for the child if the topic should ever arise, if issues should ever become apparent. But by that time, your child won’t want to turn to you, because you never made the efforts or took the steps to create a relationship or an environment of openness and communication about being adopted.

By not initiating conversations about it, you will teach your child to deny, ignore, suppress the deepest of pain and sorrow, and by doing so, to deny, ignore, and suppress a valid and significant part of his or her identity.

Of course, a six-year old child is going to appear well adjusted and happy. Or tell me what average seven-year old naturally spends his time thinking about the meaning of life? Or what five-year old is in touch with the emotions of abandonment, grief, and loss enough to tell an adult, unless a parent has taken the time to draw the child out and teach them that these deep and intense emotions are okay to express?

Adopted children will already naturally suppress what they're feeling. They don't want to endanger their position in the family. They fear if they bring it up, the AP will get angry or upset or will feel as though the adopted child is being ungrateful. Unless you communicate and teach your adopted child that it is safe to talk about his or her thoughts and emotions, questions and sadness about being adopted, he or she will by default, remain silent.

AP's who assume a child will naturally initiate a conversation about the loss and grief from being adopted demonstrate a fundamental ignorance and misunderstanding of what it means to be adopted.

Children in general have to be taught how to talk about their emotions. It doesn’t just magically happen. And when it comes to the experience of being adopted, which involves complex emotion often coupled with guilt and confusion, there is no exception to this basic fact.

I know AP’s think they’re “doing good” by neglecting their child’s pain and loss. But they’re throwing away precious opportunities and time to build a relationship of openness and communication with the adopted child while also suppressing all the pain and loss for a later time, when they instead could be equipping their child with the emotional and communication tools to deal with the loss and grief.

Do you assume that your child will learn all by himself to eat the foods that are good for him? Do you assume that your child will know how to heal his wounds if he falls off his bike and cuts open his head? Do you assume that your child will know all on her own how to cope with the death of grandma? Do you assume that your child will never have issues if she is consistently teased and ridiculed at school?

There are so many things for which we automatically take responsibility for teaching our children. We know that they need us to help them learn and grow to be healthy adults. And yet, so many AP’s make the gross mistake of assuming that their adopted child will have no issues with the loss that comes with being adopted.

This kind of thinking pains me deeply. The worst thing is that AP’s who think this way often isolate themselves in such a way that they are unable to receive the help and support from the very people who are able to help and support them. And often AP’s who think this way see no issue with the way that they think. They often view themselves as the ideal parents whose love and who in and of themselves are sufficient for their adopted child.

In other words, the ones who need to be reading this blog post and other adult adoptee blogs are most often the ones who avoid them...

(But if you are reading this, even though it's difficult, I applaud you. Although I may sound harsh, please know, I don't mean to sound as such. That is not my heart. I am simply trying to speak honestly and sincerely.)

I have more to write regarding this topic, which come in a later post...


Jenna said...

As a waiting adoptive parent who reads your blog (but has no time to comment usually), I so appreciate your honesty and vulnerability in sharing. I for one love to hear adult adoptees tell their stories so that we can learn form them.

I would love to hear what ways you feel APs can open up the conversation with their kids. I mean, we plan to do it naturally in very organic ways...but, truthfully, who can really "plan" for this kind of thing?

I wonder what you feel would have helped you in your earlier years..what we as parents can do , fro your perspective, to open the conversations, keep the communication open....other than how we try to do it all the time about everything with our kids in general.

Maybe that's hat you were already thinking of addressing.

But, I just appreciate so much the topics you bring up that help me to understand what our child will go through and how we can best come alongside hi/her in the process of grieving/processing and healing.

Mia_h_n said...

You know I agree with what you wrote in this post, and maybe it's because I'm not an AP, but I didn't find anything harsh about it. Straight forward? Sure, but why beat around the bush? And you always have comprehensible arguments and explanations. It's never just throwing around bitter accusations and finger pointing.

Jenna: To me, a good way of doing it, talking to me and my sister, have been for my parents to talk about what they knew about our history and Korea and trying to make Korean food and telling us that it would be perfectly normal and okay if we ever wanted to visit the country or search for our biological parents.
It's not like they talked about it all the time or made a big deal about it as if we were special BECAUSE we were adopted. It was just a matter of showing us that the topic wasn't off limits.
And they started doing it before I can even remember, before we even had to ask.
To me, a good way have been for them to take responsability for making the topic accesable. They never waited for us to ask if it was okay to talk or ask about. In my opinion that would have been too late.

Specifically I find that a good way to start any conversation with a small child is books. A new bedtime story could be about a boy or girl from the original country and that could be the way in to the topic. It doesn't have to be an adoption story, that would probably be a little difficult to find as a children's book. It could just be about someone in any foreign country.

I know you asked Melissa, I could just really emphasize with your desire to know more details and had a suggestion and personal experience I felt like sharing.

Mei Mei Journal said...

I wouldn't call it harsh, though it made me cry. Posts like this give adoptive parents very valuable insight. I take every word to heart.

Mila said...

Jenna, thank you for leaving a comment and for your honest inquiries. I will address your specific inquiry about what would have helped in another post.

I agree with what Mia shared, and I will expand even further with my own thoughts...

I will say just for starters, that letting it happen "in very organic ways" does not necessarily happen when it comes to being an adoptee. And actually, in some ways you do have to "plan." [By being aware of the special issues & emotions that adoptees inherently face & your role as the parent in helping the child deal with them. Reading adult adoptee blogs is key, and there are also some very helpful books out there...I have some suggested reading in the "Resources" tab on my blog...]

You have to actively create opportunities and initiate. As I mentioned briefly in this post, adopted children naturally have a sense of guilt and insecurity, a fear of rejection, etc. They are not going to ask questions or initiate conversations about how they feel unless the parent initiates and goes out of his or her way to make it clear.

I think Mia's comment addresses this issue also.

I'm glad you already open conversations with your current children, but you're going to have to fight even harder to do so with your adopted child, because he or she may resist at first simply due to insecurity and fear of rejection.

You'll have to communicate repeatedly, like a broken record, that's it's okay for them to feel sad or angry, to ask questions about his or her original parents (and to have feelings about them like missing them and wondering who they are or why they gave him or her up...)--that basically, you won't leave him or her for having such feelings.

I know to you it seems ludicrous, but to an adopted child such fear is very real. I'm almost 35 years old, and I still fear that my American family will leave me. They tell me they love me all the time. They're very loving and giving parents, but regardless of their parenting, the loss and pain, grief and sorrow of being given up by my original mother will always remain.

Good parenting won't take that away, it will simply give me a place to talk about it all and work through it safely, from the very beginning. Kids are smart and intuitive. They feels things, but have to be taught how to identify what they are feeling and why. I know I had to learn, eventually, as an adult, because I didn't get this kind of opportunity growing up...

I still have to hear my parents tell me they love me and that they'll never leave me, ESPECIALLY now that I have been reunited with my Korean family!

Anyhow, I'll write in greater detail in upcoming blog entries.

Thank you again for stopping by...

Mila said...

Mia, thank you so much for your comment! Very meaningful and helpful. Spot on!

Mila said...

Thanks, April, for stopping by and for taking to heart the insight that adult adoptees share!

Denise said...

I so appreciate your thoughts on this topic and look forward to reading more. I know that our daughter will have issues at some point and I am trying to be prepared on how best to handle her questions and emotions. (Jenna asked many of the same things that I am wondering) Because she is only 4 it is hard to know what to talk about now, besides what she remembers and what we talk about her life before coming here. She is fully aware that Mommy came to get her in China and that she had friends and nannies China. I show her pictures and we talk about them. Right now, she is excited when we talk about her past, but I find that she is mostly repeating what I have told her, because really I don't think she really remembers. Sorry, I am rambling...I think that I will e mail you today with a question that I have...thanks~

Denise said...

I just realized that you answered many of Jenna's questions, as did Mia. (That will teach me to comment after reading the comments!) Thank you both for your suggestions~

The Byrd's Nest said...

I didn't feel it was harsh at all :)
With Lottie (adopted at 9 months old in China) she has a constant fear of abandonment....CONSTANT! As I have said before she has slept with me for the entire 4 1/2 years she has been my daughter. She struggles so much with not being born in MY tummy so we have to read books and have lots of conversations. It wasn't until this year that she began to be upset that we didn't look alike. I don't know if this was the correct way to handle it but I told her that we are all made differently...and even though we don't "look" alike we have alot of things that are the same....for instance we love the same foods, movies and books. I try to encourage her to be proud of the way she looks because she is Asian and beautiful and I'll bet her first Mommy was beautiful as well. I know being insecure is who she was her beginning in could she not be? People tell me all the time "She was only 9 months can she remember being abandoned?" UGHHHH.....this makes me so angry! I usually respond (if they have children) When you had your baby, imagine her not having her MOmmy, the voice she heard in the womb...the touch that only comes from a Mommy and that she laid in a crib for 9 months without eye contact....rocked herself to sleep.....tried to hold it together and be strong as an infant!

As for Emma Jane (adopted at 23 months from Korea) she is just now after three years expressing her feelings about anything. We have spent so much time with her trying to encourage her to express herself. She is only five but she has deep feelings that are in her heart that need to be expressed. She is just now expressing anger of which we are excited to see! She lived with her Mommy for 17 months and her grandmother. She knew what love felt like (unlike Lottie) she was loved and cared for and nurtured BUT what a tailspin for her when she was thrust into another country with a strange family who spoke differently, smelled differently and lived differently. Oh how we pray for this child that we can one day earn her trust. This week for the VERY FIRST TIME she came to me.....crawled in my lap....and said, "Mommy, I want to snuggle with you". I feel for the first time in three years this window has been opened and maybe now we can begin the healing process and help her to express herself....maybe the wall will begin to come down a little and maybe not but whatever happens I am here for her and I understand her pain. Sometimes adult adoptee blogs are hard to read because as a parent of course you want your child to always feel safe and secure and good about themselves. But that doesn't always happen even with bio children. I have a 22 year old daughter who battled anorexia in middle was caused by mean girls in school. Her self esteem took many years to grown and she is still not there and this may be a battle she fights the rest of her life. I don't know.

What I do know after parenting for 26 years is this.....the words that we use with our children paint pictures in their hearts forever. We cannot protect them from the words of the people in the "world" because things will happen and they need to be armored with the right words to say back to people but we can choose uplifting....encouraging words for our children to build them up and then learn from those like you that have been there and we can "choose" to help our adopted children.

The Byrd's Nest said...

But I also want to thank you....and thank you to other adult adoptees as well for sharing your hearts with us
I know you have had a painful journey and I pray I can learn so much from you and help my girls at the same time.

Mei Mei Journal said...

"In other words, the ones who need to be reading this blog post and other adult adoptee blogs are most often the ones who avoid them...
Yes, but a post like this is just what it takes to enlighten some people. Would you mind if I linked to it from my blog?

Jenna said...

Mia and Melissa-

Thanks so much! I appreciate you sharing your experiences, thoughts, and perspectives on this with us! I am going to continue reading and learning as I wait, and pray that then I can be as fully prepared to help walk alongside my child as he/she processes all the difference facets of loss that are inherent in adoption.

In some ways, I think I have a good help form my husband who, while raised by his mother, was abandoned by his father at 3 months old. Many of the things you talk about on your blog he has walked through himself, so I know he will understand so much more so than I the thought processes and feelings that our child will experience and how to keep the lines of communication open and keep the reassurances flowing.

Thanks again!


Mila said...

April, yes, of course, feel free to link to this post (and any other post for that matter, should you ever want to again...). I appreciate your support!

Mila said...

Denise, I received your email and will send you a response :)

And overall, Jenna, Denise, Byrd's nest, MeiMei Journal, I am refreshed by your willingness to educate yourselves and to open yourselves up to feedback & insight from adult adoptees.

I know it's hard at times, but no doubt, the children you love will benefit!

It's so true that every adoptee is different. Some will be more vocal and emotionally in tune, other's will be more reserved and less emotionally open.

But laying the foundation by continuing to initiate conversation & discussion about their adoption experience will let them know that you are not threatened or afraid, angry or upset by the thoughts and emotions within them. It will help them to overcome the guilt inherently felt.

Even if you have an adopted child who doesn't initially seem to respond much to the questions you ask or the discussions you try to initiate, that doesn't mean they're not internalizing your openness. When they're ready, they'll know they can come to you, if you continue to persevere in communicating to them that you are aware of and accepting of what they think and feel.

I myself was the kind of adopted child who did not (and the kind of adult who does not) naturally open up. I know, my blog would seem to show you otherwise, but I've had to work on opening up for years and years. My husband has been one of the greatest helps, quite honestly, along with some key Korean adoptees who also blog.

My family did not naturally cultivate any kind of discussion or conversation about being adopted. And then, wam! In adolescence and into adulthood, man, did the lights begin to come on. And it totally blind-sided me and my family! We had NO idea what was going on.

I love my family deeply, and I'm not sharing that to reflect poorly on them. But more to exemplify the importance of educating yourself as an AP, so that you can build a foundation of openness in your relationship with your adopted child.

Developmentally, the average four or five year old isn't going to necessarily know how to access the thoughts and emotions within. But if you begin building, teaching, and drawing them out now, then as they mature psychologically and intellectually, they will know how to talk about it and also won't be afraid to talk about it...

If you have not already read "Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Parents Knew," I would highly recommend reading it. I don't necessarily agree with everything the author purports, but overall, it's a solid book.

3 Peanuts said... glad you left me a comment and I was able to come here. I used to think that love was enough ad now I know that i need to do a lot more. Than you for your frank and informed thoughts.

Mia_h_n said...

Melissa, I agree that even if the children doesn't seem to respond early on to the enviroment of openess and communication it does still make all the differnece in the long run.
My parents have always talked to me, but it wasn't until my late twenties that I was ready to talk back, but when I felt like it, it wasn't difficult for me at all to talk to them about it.

I lost track of who said it, but I also agree that as an AP you can't reasure your child of your love enough.
If you have both bio. and adopted children you can love them all the same, but you'll probably have to reasure the adopted ones more and have more patience with them in terms of love and respect and abandonment.
I'm 32 and I suspect that I'll ALWAYS be scared my parents will leave me. I know they love me, but still. It's one of the big adoptee complications...

And Byrd's Nest, your comment got me all choked up. Thank you for your openess.

Mei Ling said...

"I know you think that you’ll be there for the child if the topic should ever arise, if issues should ever become apparent."

To adoptive parents:

You can't WAIT for it to be brought up. YOU have to bring it up. If YOU don't bring it up, your child won't know it's okay TO bring it up because YOU aren't saying anything!

Almost every (if not every) adopted child will someday ask: Why didn't my mother keep me?

That is a question you can "plan for."

Almost every (if not every) adopted child will someday ask: Why was I adopted?

That is a question you can "plan for." And by "plan for", I mean have some semblance of a response rather than just panicking and thinking "OMG I don't know!"

Like Melissa said, my adoptive parents love me very much.

But they are not my biological parents, and their love cannot take away the pain of abandonment, whether factual or merely perceived.

Mila said...

Mei-Ling, well said. Thank you for your comment. You always provide great insight and feedback.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I haven't been on your blog for a while and then I read today--Boom! I have been talking to every adoptive parent that I meet about being aware that there will be issues. You were not harsh, just real. I know that I was one of the ones who thought that love would be enough. I meet people all the time who are clueless--not bad, just thoughtless or clueless about what is going on with their child. I also made the mistake of letting my child take the lead in talking. For many years, she would not talk about being adopted and even today, we have to catch her at the right moment when something comes up and she is willing to talk. I have eased up tremendously on my expectations of her and love and appreciate her more than ever for the unique creation of God that she is. And that is what you are as well. The passage in 2 Cor. 1 about God's comfort is one of my favorites. Nothing we go through, good or bad, is in vain. We can use our experiences to help others. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your comfort. Mary Nell

Michael said...

Thanks for writing this. It comes across as real, but not harsh. As an Adoptive Dad, I appreciate that as you write, you address how your words might be misunderstood.

I really understand that the AP's reading this are not the ones who most need to read it. When I have parent conferences, it is not with the student's parents who most need it. It is often with those who do not need a conference.

I do not have even 1/10 of the answers, but as my first boss and best friend told me. It is most important to know who to call when you don't know the answers and if they don't know, then they will start calling their resources.

Thanks for being one of the best resources for us to see the world through another set of eyes.


Michael said...

I am the parent of two adult adoptees. Darling Daughter and #1 Son adopted me, my wife and joined our family. This is not the usual way.

I understand the fear of rejection. It is my greatest fear that either one could walk away. This is especially truly with Darling Daughter as there are times when we calls are not returned due to her crazy work schedule. It is always there in the back of my mind.

It is in her mind as well. When we began the process to adopt the little guy from China, she did not return calls for more than 6 months. She later apologized and told me that she was afraid there would be no place for her in our family.

This need for reassurance goes both ways. #1 Son taught us to hug and to be very open with affirmations of love which my "John Wayne" Dad did not know how to do. He also has learned this lesson. Another lesson in life's journey.


Mila said...

Michael, thanks for stopping by. And thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Mary Nell, thank you also for sharing your thoughts.

Michal said...

I am an AP and I loved this post. I am glad that you wrote it, I only wish that I had read it years ago. We brought our daughter home from China in 2005 and I did my best to keep my head in the sand and think that just my loving her would be all that she needed. We are not like this anymore and try to take issues head on.
I have worked steadily with her for 3 years now and I am just seeing it all pay off. She is a fiercely independent person- organically, so everything has this extra layer of complexity.
I have tried and tried to talk with her about how she feels about her birth mother, about her time in China without us - she just walks away. She is 5. I realize now that each child has their own emotional arc or timeline. It has taken us this long to get her to rely on us completely. The rest will follow I am sure. She is smart. She gets how her early life went down. I don't push the issue because I know that for THIS girl it will take a little more time for her to get to the place where we can have REAL discussions about this. I tell her all of the time that it's okay to be sad/mad/glad/whatever or to think of China and her birth mom and then I ask if she has anything to say or to ask. Right now she is not ready and I will keep the door open until she is.
That's all I can do. I have read recently that it is important to meet your children where they are. I am trying to do that. Some days I feel like I want to keep on hammering away until her walls break down but I also feel that might cause more harm than good.
I do feel that individual personality has alot to do with the types of reactions/questions/feelings about early life.
I do wonder constantly if we are handling this right. But I do know that when I try to force these conversations, or to remind her of how her life was, in any way- she gets truly unbalanced and fearful and can't sleep. So at this young age, I pick comfort and security over delving emotional depths.
I am just putting this out there because I feel that not every family has to attack this for their child at young ages. Is keeping the door open and being aware and waiting until they are ready enough?I do agree with what you said about a child not pondering the meaning of life or instinctively knowing what is good for them. That's true. But I have to be sensitive to the reactions I see in my daughter. I think that children do not ponder these deep emotions because they don't have the tools for it. I will hand her the tools and help her use them when we can talk about this without shaking up her whole world.

the meaklims said...

We need more writers like yourself. More people writing blog posts like this one. More people who care for the adopted child.

This is one of the best posts I've read in a long time.

As a mother to my first daughter, adopted from China, and will turn three soon, I need all the help I can get. And I am thankful for bloggers like you.

Thank you.

Mila said...

Michal, thank you for you comment and for sharing so openly.

You are so right that every adoptee is so different, and each adoptee has different ways with which they cope--which can also change over time. I know my ways of coping have changed over time in particular based on maturity and also understanding...

I think what you're doing--continuing to communicate to her that you are always there to talk when she is ready--is the best thing you can do!!!!

It's true you don't want to force it, but the way that she reacts shows that the pain and wounds are deep, and hence, she will need your help as she matures. And she also needs to know that you will always be there when she is ready. She will not trust this or know this inherently.

So, your efforts to consistently communicate that she can talk to you when she is ready are crucial. I think some parents assume that their adopted child will naturally open up to them. It will not come naturally if a foundation is not built during childhood.

So, what you're doing--letting her know that you're aware of the pain, letting her know that you won't be angry or upset when she is ready to talk about it is vital.

It's not that you have to try to get her to talk about it now, as much as it is consistently helping her to feel secure that you WANT her to open up to you when the time comes.

And by you being open with her, by you talking about how you feel about it will teach her and show her HOW to talk about it one day.

Saying things like, "It's okay if you don't want to talk about it. I just know I feel sad sometimes, and it helps me to talk about it when I do feel sad. So, I just want you to know that I am always here for you if you ever want me to listen," or something like that...

Since she has a tendency to walk away or shut down, I think it is particularly important to communicate that there is nothing she can do to truly push you away--that no matter what. you are not going anywhere.

My natural tendency actually is to shut down and walk away, literally. There are times that I have literally run away--both as a child and when I was a young adult. My husband is the one who has really shown me that he will fight for me. He has shown me that I don't have to run away to protect myself from being left.

Earlier in our relationship I would push him away, shut down, and even leave the house without telling him where I was going...I was subconsciously testing him to see if he would come after me, sometimes literally, but always emotionally. I wanted to know that he truly wanted to be with me. Would he just let me leave, or would he fight for me, would he come after me?

Gosh, this is a long comment. I could write a lot on this topic...and actually, Michal, I think you may have just given me a topic for a blog post! Thanks! :)

Thank you again for stopping by and for leaving a comment. I appreciate your willingness to open your heart and to educate yourself. :)

Mila said...

Thank you, Jill (and Colin) for your encouragement. It really does help to know that I am not doing this in vain!

There are so many adult adoptees who blog and work so hard to offer helpful, honest insight. It means so much to know that there are adoptive parents out there who are making efforts to listen. :)

Michal said...

Melissa, I wrote that comment and held my breath. I kind of needed to put myself out there and get some feedback form someone other than AP's. I was uncertain if my tact was okay but I feel much better now.
I am truly going to use this : "It's okay if you don't want to talk about it. I just know I feel sad sometimes, and it helps me to talk about it when I do feel sad. So, I just want you to know that I am always here for you if you ever want me to listen"- it's perfect for Ev!

Keep writing, keep helping. This has meant so much to me.

Mia_h_n said...


I'm also an AA and I totally agree with what Melissa said - even right down to the ways of testing my husband!

"I do wonder constantly if we are handling this right." "Is keeping the door open and being aware and waiting until they are ready enough?" YES.
To me this is exactly the way to do it.

You're right, kids mature at different speeds and will have different ages when they'll want to talk, and when your daugther's this young it's probably too early, but you're doing your part well.
I can understand the inclination to want to crack her shell when you with your adult mind can see she's avoiding things, but I think it's important to let her be ready. And when she's ready she'll most likely come to you because you have told her and showed her that it's okay to talk about it and feel it.

It's not that I felt like talking about or was even aware of my feelings about Korea/adoption/birth family until I was a young adult and even now in my early 30s I'm still learning.
But when I was ready I didn't have any problems with talking to my (adoptive) parents about it all. They've always initiated conversations about it during my childhood and asked about it but never pushed it. If I said "I don't know" and shrugged or closed the subject in other ways, they accepted it. But they showed me not to be afraid of it.

I applaud your effort.

Mila said...

Michal, thank you so much for your feedback and insight, and contributing your experience to the discussion. Your comments are very valuable and reassuring!

Anonymous said...

You have such a wonderful post, Mila. Frankly speaking, the more you think about the issues that might form in the minds of your adopted child, the more you will feel anxious. What I would suggest is that you treat them like what you do with your birth child, never give them extra attention as insecurity would only elope. I know this because I'm also an adopted child, and what I suggested is the way that my adoptive parent did with me.

Aiko Dumas

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